The already very tense political situation in Turkey shows no sign of easing, especially as the AKP government and President Erdogan have adopted the war-like rhetoric of their predecessors on Kurdish issues. Thus, following the deaths of 16 Turkish soldiers in the Hakkari region, killed by roadside bombs, for which the PKK claimed responsibility, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu promised to “annihilate” the PKK activists and “make them disappear” from the mountains of Eastern Turkey. We seem to be back in the dark days of the 90s, when the Army chiefs promised to cleanse the country of Kurdish “separatists”. As we know, despite these martial proclamations, the activists in question are still there and, in the last few weeks they have proved their ability to strike the Turkish security forces.
The government is also resorting to force in other areas, pulling out all the stops in attacking the press, trying to silence the growing and more audible criticisms. Here too the situation is worryingly similar to a past we had though ended. Above all there is a toughening of media censorship, whether it discusses the Kurdish question, government policy, or alludes to suspicions of corruption among AKP leaders or members of the Presidents family. There have been a series of all out mob attacks on the media, as well as arrests, legal charges and the expulsions of foreign journalists who dared to cover events in the “South East”.
Thus, on the 1st of the month, the police carried out 23 simultaneous raids on the offices of the Koga Ipek media group, close to the influential preacher, Fetullah Gülen, at present living in the US. The tone has also toughened towards foreign journalists. In addition to the expulsion of a Dutch journalist accused of having links with the PKK, Turkey has, for the first time in 15 years, jailed foreign journalists, namely three journalist of Vice News. Arrested in Diyarbekir on Thursday 27 August, they were charged with terrorism regarding ISIS on 1st September by Diyarbekir Court — before two of them, both British, were expelled to the UK.
Even more worrying are the violent raids on the premises of the leading Turkish daily Hürriyet, the Turkish equivalent of the Daily Telegraph, on Sunday 6 and Tuesday 8 September. The aggressors called for the paper to be burnt down “like the Madimak Hotel”. It should be recalled that at this hotel, in the town of Sivas, in the East of the country, was burnt down in July 1993, about thirty intellectuals who had gone there to celebrate an Alevi festival, were burnt alive by a crowd of radical islamists, without the police attempting to intervene. This “Sivas Massacre” caused 37 deaths, including the hotel staff and the tourists. Such a reference leads one to think that the rioters had been informed that in this month of September they would have nothing to fear from the police.
In general there has been an intensification of nationalist feelings that have led to anti-Kurdish attacks taking place throughout the country. Thus, as from 7 September, the premises of the “pro-Kurdish” and progressive HDP suffered nearly 200 co-ordinated attacks (128 of them on 7 September itself), none of which aroused any reaction from the police who are supposed to protect a party that until 22 September had representatives in the government.
Furthermore, Kurds living in the West of Turkey felt that they were increasingly threatened personally, some being attacked simply because of their ethnicity. Others narrowly escaped being lynched, without the police making any effort to protect them — indeed they often interrogated the victims rather than the aggressors… Some witnesses explain that they are now very careful not to speak Kurdish in the street.
President Erdogan and the AKP government seem to have calculated that playing the game of increasing tension in September throughout the country would win them, in November, the votes that they had lost in June. However, while most of the polls show no significant gains for the AKP, it is dangerous to arouse such ultra-nationalist feelings in such a country, since once aroused the government that played wizards apprentice with them could be the next victim.
Indeed, provoking or allowing violence to take place in a pre-electoral period carries dangers for the future of democracy in the country. Salahettin Demirtaş, the co-President of the HDP, warned that the country was in danger of sinking into civil war. On the 20th he stated that if the acts of violence continued in the South East, it would be hard to organise the elections on 1st November.
In fact, the clashes on the spot have increased and caused the deaths of many civilians as well as of the police. In the course of military operations in the town of Cizre, in which a curfew had been imposed from 4 to 13 September, 23 civilians were killed, many shot by snipers. The important city of Diyarbekir was also, briefly, put under a curfew. This generalised violence has also given a fresh impulse to Kurdish nationalism amongst the young, many of whom no longer hesitate about joining the YDC-H (the PKK youth organisation) and launching real urban guerrilla operations.
On the 19th the government announced that it was going to recruit thousands of Kurdish militia to fight against the PKK. This, too, is not new solution but a return to the ill-famed policy of “Village Guardians” — of which there are still about 70,000 members in the country’s Kurdish regions. During the 90s, this policy had been the cause of many acts of violence and abuses of power and a serious split in Kurdish society.
Another step back to the bad old ways of the 80s: the action of the judiciary against Kurdish political opposition members. Last July a Public Prosecutor started proceedings against Demirtaş, accused of disturbing public order and incitement of violence.
At international level, this hard line of the AKP government against the PKK) and by extension against the Kurds in Turkey generally) by wooing the Turkish ultra-nationalists is placing the country in an impossible position in the US-led Coalition against ISIS. By considering the Syrian Kurds as its main enemies, the country, although a member of NATO, has, for nearly a year, conditioned the US use of its air base at Incirlik on the creation of a security zone over the North of Syria. The official aim of this zone is to offer an area of shelter for displaced Syrians. In fact, however, the Turkish government seems mainly anxious to prevent the Syrian YPG, loosely associated with the Turkish PKK, from controlling the Northern borders of Syria. However, the US (and other members of the Coalition) have noted that the only ground forces effectively fighting ISIS are the PYD Kurds, and have begun to provide them with aid.
Moreover, the lack of any support from Turkey to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) during the ISIS attack in the summer of last year has seriously shaken the Iraqi Kurdistan leaders confidence in their northern neighbour. Turkish bombing of the PKK refuges in the Iraqi Kurdistan mountains have increasingly weakened these relations, despite the coolness of relations between the PKK and the KDP, the leading member of the KRG partnership. While there is no foreseeable likelihood of an open breach between the KRG and Turkey, since the former is hemmed in by the latter, and needs an outlet for its oil production, this warning will certainly not be forgotten…
Whatever the outcome of the November elections, Mr Erdogan’s electoral gamble will lead Turkey in to new areas of political disturbance with unforeseeable consequences.
Be they Peshmergas of Iraqi Kurdistan or activists of the Syrian YPG and YPJ linked to the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the Kurdish fighters, in the absence of any ground troops of the anti-ISIS Coalition, continue to be in the front line of the struggle against ISIS. It is they alone who, in the field, have been the most effective force against them.
A new Centre for military co-ordination between the US, Iraqi and Kurdistan forces was set up in Erbil at the beginning of the month. It should enable easier co-ordination between Baghdad and Erbil Commands. In parallel, the “Ninawa” Command, set up the year before in Baghdad to train the Iraqi Sunni Arabs in preparation for operations against Mosul, will be moved to Kurdistan and integrated into this new co-ordinating body, which will include representatives (on an equal basis) of the Iraqi and Kurdistan governments and the Coalition.
On 8 September, the Peshmerga Ministry announced it had started to recruit three new brigades of 3000 Peshmergas each, backed by the US Army, which will supply the new fighters with equipment, arms and training.
ISIS is using new kinds of weaponry against the Kurds; thus the Peshmergas shot down, early in September, a drone sent by ISIS to examine their lines. They also report having suffered several gas attacks and have secured a thousand masks from Germany to protect themselves. However, ISIS’s favourite method remains the use of home made mines to booby-trap the areas from which they are obliged to retreat. Thus, during a Peshmerga offensive on the 11th, which enabled them to secure the road between Kirkuk and Baghdad and the centre of the township of Daquq, the majority of the Peshmerga casualties (13 killed) were due to these mines.
On the 15th (according to a Twit by the US President’s deputy special representative to the anti-ISIS Coalition, Brett McGurk), Masud Barzani met Lieutenant General James L. Terry to discuss the current Peshmerga operations. A few days later, a group of 90 US soldiers arrived at the Makhmour base, Southwest of Erbil, probably to prepare the operation against Mosul.
On the last day of the month, a ground offensive involving 3,600 Peshmergas enabled a dozen villages, Southwest of Kirkuk, to be taken back from ISIS. The objective was to tighten the grip on Hawija, an ISIS stronghold 230 Km North of Baghdad, so as better to protect the Kurdish Region against possible attacks. According to the Kurdistan Security Council, at least 40 ISIS fighters were killed in the operation.
Still according to Brett McGurk, Masud Barzani and the PYG co-President, Salih Muslim, also met to discuss co-ordination in the struggle against ISIS.
According to Hemin Hawrami, the KDP officer responsible for international relations, they discussed the arrival of KRG-trained Syrian Kurdish Peshmergas to support Rojava (Syrian Western Kurdistan). These would be members of Syrian Kurdish parties close to the Iraqi KDP, which makes this unlikely. It was, indeed, denied the next day by the general co-ordination of the “Cantons”, the autonomous administration set up in Syrian Kurdistan by the PYD, which insisted that the only legal armed forces in Rojava were those answerable to it — the YPG/YPJ (Men and women Units for People’s Protection) and the Rojava Asaish (Rojava police). Despite these limitations, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are undoubtedly co-ordinating their struggle against their common enemy.
However, the Iraqi Kurds are extremely cautious regarding their possible involvement in an operation aiming at taking Mosul back from ISIS. This is, after all a very big city inhabited by Sunni Arabs — the issue is thus not so much a military as a political one.
Were the city retaken from ISIS and its ex-Baathist allies, who would be able to maintain control of it? While some parts of the city, which is divided by the Tigris, are mainly Kurdish, it would also mean controlling the Western part — that is behaving like a foreign occupation force. This would be most uncomfortable in this longtime stronghold of Arab Nationalism.
The Peshmergas are, essentially, a force formed to defend Kurdsistan, whose means are already over-stretched by the present situation (over 1000 km of front against very well equipped Jihadists) as well as the task of ensuring the security of all the formerly disputed areas, of which the Kurdistan Region gained control in the summer of 2014. This is an area of plains and small hills, whose population is not exclusively Kurdish in places — a military nightmare. Moreover the political crisis continuing in the rear is a further source of anxiety for the KRG’s Kurdish forces.
The political crisis that the Kurdistan Region has been going through since the end of Masud Barzani’s term of office on 19 August, shows no sign of easing, nor has the situation advanced in the course of September. In the absence of any consensus between the various political parties on a solution, and in view of the military situation, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party continues to act as leader. However, Kurdistan’s economic situation is worsening and this arouses increasing social unease and daily increases the tension of the discussions.
The main Iraqi Kurdish political parties: Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Movement for Change (Gorran), the Islamic Union (Yekgirtû-î Islamî) and the Islamic Group (Komal-î Islamî) have met repeatedly throughout the month without reaching an agreement. The positions between the KDP (that supports a Presidential regime, with more powers to a directly elected President) and its partners (who want a regime with more powers to the Region’s Parliament, including that of electing the President) seem irreconcilable. This has reached the point where separate meetings have begin to take place without the KDP — a situation that could only aggravate the differences. In fact, neither the supporters of a parliamentary system nor those supporting a presidential one have enough votes to carry out or to block a decision.
Thus on 3 September the Speaker of the Kurdish Parliament, Yusuf Muhammad Sadiq (Gorran) decided that “it was up to the parliament to take the decisions about this Presidential crisis”. To which Masud Barzani in effect replied two days later during a meeting with a UNO delegation, that “if the political parties cannot reach an agreement it should be submitted to the people”.
Whereas Gorran absolutely rejects the idea of a referendum, which would support the KDP, which enjoys a majority, the PUK seems readier for a compromise — Molla Bakhtyar, head of its Politburo, stated on 8th: “the referendum was the best solution if Masud Barzani could not propose a solution to the crisis”. Following another meeting of the 5 parties on the 13th he then said “the PUK agreed to an early Presidential election”.
Meanwhile the newly formed Electoral Commission, after recalling that it alone could legally call for fresh elections, announced that, for logistic reasons (recruiting personnel, setting up of polling stations), it would need at least six months of cooperation with Parliament to organise an election.
In the middle of the month, after 8 sittings of all 5 of Kurdistan’s main parties, a possible compromise seems to have emerged — the 4 parties opposed to a Presidential regime accepted that the President be directly elected by popular vote, but with less powers than at present — the alternative being election by Parliament, but with more extensive powers! At the end of the month the 4 non-KDP parties proposed a choice between two options: a) a Presidential election by direct popular vote, in which, should the highest scoring candidate win less than 50% of the vote, the electoral commission would decide between the top two; or b) election by Parliament where, if the leading candidate failed to secure 75% of the vote Parliament would chose between the top two candidates.
The KDP agreed to study these proposals before the next meeting, set to 6 October. However the Prime Minister, Neçirvan Barzani (also a KDP member), described them as “strange” and “unsuited to the Region’s needs”. These remarks prompted the other 4 parties to threaten to break off negotiations, while the non-KDP members of Parliament refused to vote any new laws (which would have then been signed by the President) who they considered no longer legitimate. Thus the search for a political solution to the question of the Region’s Presidency has got nowhere throughout the month…
In the tense situation throughout the Middle East, the stability of Iraqi Kurdistan is a vital issue for the region and internationally. Some of the other forces have tried to promote a compromise, but the crisis undermines such attempts that risk being seen as interfering in the Region’s internal affairs or supporting one or another of the factions— which some of them have often done in the past.
Iran, directly threatened by ISIS, and whose borders with Kurdistan are nearly 1000 km long, is particularly concerned by the situation. Iraqi Kurdistan is now a major trading partner — 2 billion dollars a year, according to the Suleimaniyah Chamber of Commerce, with a 40% increase in the last two months compared to the same periods the year before.
Consequently, on 7 September, in the course of a third visit to Kurdistan, a delegation of Iranian Pasdaran (Guardians of the Revolution) met some PUK leaders in Suleimaniah before visiting Gorran and then going to Erbil for a meeting with Masud Barzani.
The absence of any solution to this crisis while the Kurdistan Region is threatened by ISIS and faces increasing economic problems gives cause for concern.
On 2 September the photo of the 2-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Kurdish child from Syria, lying dead on a beach in Turkey, provoked a storm of highly emotional reactions in the media and public opinion. Nevertheless, this had little or no effect on the political responses and decisions. Yet the UN High Commission for Refugees had recalled that the number of displaced people in the world now amounted to 60 million, the highest level since the Second World War, and Syria is the first source, after sub-Saharan Africa, of the “displaced” people and “refugees” in the world.
Since the Spring of 2011, the HCR has recorded 4 millions Syrian refugees, 2 millions of them in Turkey (which has a population of 75 millions), over 1 million in the Lebanon (for a population of 4 millions and 400,000 in Iraq, the overwhelming majority of whom are in the Kurdistan Region. This is the safest area for them, where camps have been set up between Erbil and (especially) Dohuk — the Domiz camp has, today, 80,000 refugees.
The refugee question thus concerns the local actors to the highest degree — including ISIS, that used the picture of little Alan Kurdi in its propaganda to stress that it considered that it was a sin for Moslems to flee to Europe…
Early in 2015, the Kurdistan Region Government announced that, in view of its own economic situation, it would need outside help to continue to ensure the reception of refugees.
The Kurdish leaders in Syria, for their part, have, since the beginning of hostilities, been worried about the destabilisation of the population of Rojava (Syrian or Western Kurdistan) that might endanger the very existence of a Kurdish community in Northern Syria.
Indeed, the areas inhabited by Kurds in the country, because of their geography and layout, are more vulnerable militarily than, for example, Iraqi Kurdistan. Rojava consists of three separate enclaves hemmed in by the Turkish border: 1) The Jezira, round two towns, Qamishli (Qamishlo) to the North and Hassakeh to the South. 2) Kobane, now famous for its resistance last year. 3) The region of Efrin, Northeast of Aleppo, the only one with a rather mountainous landscape. This relatively strategic advantage is offset by the proximity to Aleppo, a centre of fierce fighting since the start of the civil war. This city, moreover, has some historically Kurdish quarters, including that of Sheikh Maqsoud, won back from the El Nosra Front by the YPG on the 28th of this month.
The difficulty of defending Rojava militarily is one of the explanations why the policy of the Kurdish leaders was, from the start of the civil war, marked by its great caution about committing itself in the conflict. A mass exodus of the Syrian Kurds could have resulted (and could yet result) in the disappearance of the country’s Kurdish community and made any later demands impossible. Another reason for this caution is certainly the very negative attitude adopted regarding Kurdish demands, from the start of the conflict, by the non-Kurdish opposition.
Thus the PYD had to choose to avoid committing itself to head on struggles until it was threatened, while seeking alliances in the non-Kurdish areas that separate its three enclaves to secure a “security zone”— in particular with the moderate organisations of the Arab opposition and of other minority groups, to confront the islamist extremists.
Faced with the increasing power of ISIS, probably the most dangerous enemy, and one with whom no negotiation could be envisaged, the PYD sometimes preferred to be allied to the regimes forces, when the area was directly threatened. This was the case for the town of Hassaké, at present held partly by the YPG and partly by the Syrian Army. Here, on 14 September, ISIS aimed its attacks on both the Kurds and the Government’s troops with two simultaneous vehicle bomb attacks, which killed 6 Kurds, 7 Army troops and 15 civilians. Saleh Muslim, PYD co-president, clearly expressed these priorities when he stated on the 21st that the fall of the Damascus government would open the gates to the Jihadists, who are a greater danger than the regime.
Further to the East, the Sinjar region is also directly threatened by ISIS. Here co-ordinated operations between the KRG’s Peshmergas have been set up and a joint force is envisaged. Sinjar is in Iraq, but it adjoins the Southern borders of the Syrian Jezeeré. It is too close to the PYD’s Eastern Canton for the former to take any risks. Moreover, the population balance of the Kurdish areas has been altered by flow of non-Kurdish Syrians seeking refuge in what is still the safest part of the country.
Some Kurds deplore the fact that these displaced people are allowed into Rojava and then allowed to go on to Turkey while the PYD administration has passed a law forbidding Kurds from leaving the regions of Efrin and Hassaké to go to Turkey. Furthermore, young people of military service age are obliged to do 6 months service in the armed forces, which has made many leave. Moreover the fighting on the borders of these enclaves has forced many families to leave their homes — many inhabitants of Efrin have recently fled their original home areas because of the fighting between the YPG and Al-Nosra. A PYD representative in Iraqi Kurdistan has called on Europe, faced with the arrival of refugees from Syria, to help Rojava, which faces both an embargo and war.
Despite these difficulties, the struggle against the Jihadists is continuing. The Syrian Kurds are planning to retake the last point on the border with Turkey that is still held by the Jihadists. This would make it impossible for them to continue to receive volunteers from Europe through this channel. This has led the US State Department spokesman, John Kirby, to declare on 22 September, at a Press Conference that “the USA does not consider the YPG to be a terrorist organisation”. He also added, in respect of Turkey, “It is not necessary to agree on all points to be in a coalition”. The disagreement between the US (and no doubt its other NATO allies) and Turkey regarding their attitude to the PYD could certainly not be made clearer.